We spoke with Raj Patel back in the summer of 2013, before the existence of Rootstock Radio, and we’re so happy we’re able to bring his words to you today. He spoke with host Theresa Marquez and Organic Valley’s own “Kickapoo scholar” Jerome McGeorge about some pretty deep issues – our broken food system and our broken democracy, and some solutions for these issues.
As our food and farming system today strives to become more and more streamlined and simple, Patel says that we can combat the problems this trend is creating by embracing the complexity of agroecological farming systems.
“I think that when you’re thinking about ways of surviving this bigger complexity and asymmetries, I think actually complexity can be our friend when it happens in a way that works with ecology rather than against it,” says Patel.
Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic best known for his first book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (2008). He regularly writes for numerous publications, and his latest book, The Value of Nothing (2010), is a New York Times bestseller. He can be heard co-hosting the fortnightly food politics podcast The Secret Ingredient with Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott, and KUT’s Rebecca McInroy. He is currently working on a ground-breaking documentary project about the global food system with award-winning director Steve James. He’s also completing a book on world ecology with Jason W Moore for the University of California Press entitled Seven Cheap Things.
Interview with Raj Patel and Jerome McGeorge
November 16, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: It is pretty exciting today, in a rare moment, really, when we have critical thinker Raj Patel and our own Kickapoo scholar, Jerome McGeorge, here to really talk about a couple of deep subjects. One is the broken food system and also our broken democracy.
And we are so excited to have Raj here. And one of the things, Raj, that has been fascinating for Jerome and I, as we’ve been reviewing your books, your life, your background, and the things that you’ve been doing, is we couldn’t help but think about a book that was about the collapse of complex civilization, by Joseph Tainter. And I think—I bet you both are familiar with it. And as we were reading and we thought about this and thought, wow, are we so in such a complex situation right now, have we reached that point? And your solutions were so fascinating to us, but we still were wondering, will these solutions help us get out of this potential collapse of the complexity of our civilization?
RAJ PATEL: Well, I mean, it’s such a great question, such a rich question. And I think in part, what we’re up against—there’s nothing wrong with complexity. We were talking under the stars last night, and you could hear the sort of symphony of insects just surrounding us. And that’s the sound of a complex system. I mean, nature, the world in which we live and the ecology through which we move, is an incredibly complex system. We have nothing approaching an understanding of quite how intricate and how interrelated the species on the world in which we move are. So there’s nothing wrong with complexity.
The trouble is the way that we’ve built our society. Again, it needn’t be—a complex society needn’t be an unstable one, except when we have the kinds of vast asymmetries in power that our society now has. So there’s nothing wrong with complexity, but there’s everything wrong with injustice. And the way that our society looks is not merely that it’s complex but that it is top-heavy, and that it is unstable from a perspective of some people having a great deal of power and the majority of us having very little. And that seems to me something to be very worried about.
And yet there’s reason to be a little hopeful, because while you see this sort of great, awful system sort of teetering and we’re all paying the price for everything from bank failure to climate change—and, of course, the poorest pay the most—we’re also seeing some incredible experiments in alternatives, life boats, if you will, that are already kind of working and showing that they can weather the storm. Whether in an agroecological way or through different ways of organizing community, there are reasons to think of actually that complex systems can get us through this mess.
Actually there’s a fantastic story. I’ve got to tell you this story because it’s from Cuba, where we’re thinking about climate change, and there’s an example of how complex systems are better at dealing with climate change than simple systems. So, the hurricane tore through Cuba in 2008, and there were plantain plantations, and these are sort of like banana plantations. And the industrial monoculture, where you just have one thing, well those plantain trees were planted next to each other, they were all quite tall, and when the wind came, they all fell down. And because it’s a plantation, there weren’t people around to save those trees, and so the majority of those trees were lost. And it took about 180 days to get back on track for that plantation.
But there was an agroecological plantation where it was a smaller scale, there were families nearby, and you had tall plantains and medium plantains and ground cover crops and crops for food and for fuel, and there was mulching, and there was a range of really sophisticated organic agricultural techniques. When the hurricane blew through this complex system, the tall trees fell, but most of them could be saved because the community was nearby. And those ones that couldn’t be saved were used for fuel. And then because the canopy was clear, there was more light for the medium plantains and for the other crops that people needed. And not only that, but they were back on track within 90 days, not 180, so about half the time. And as farmers around here know, that kind of three months in agriculture is an eternity. And that was made possible, not by a simple system, but by a complex one.
So I think that when you’re thinking about ways of surviving this bigger complexity and the asymmetries, I think, actually complexity can be our friend when it happens in a way that works with ecology rather than against it.
JEROME MCGEORGE: Well, and I would comment, Raj, you are pointing social and political definitions of complexity, the agroecological. We can approach it from the other direction. I’m very much a philosopher of the traditional elements. We have broken down the natural balance in two of the elements: the oceans of air, and we call it climate change, and the oceans of water, which are dying. We have no idea, once we stop destructing, how to restore. And it gets back to a simple, children learn, “If you can’t fix it, don’t break it.” And in our complexity and our unknown dimensions of ecological damage, we are moving into dangers we can’t even analyze. And to me, those are elements of collapse beyond the political-social dimensions, which also can overwhelm us, as you were pointing out.
Now, the agroecological complexity is a positive way of approaching what is the factors in collapse, and, one would even say, within the organic movement, within solutions. The idea of carbon farming and the carbon sequestration that is implicit in developing carbon farming and forestry is a definite positive approach to the collapse of the complex effects that, many of which, are unintended consequences or unconscious.
RP: And I think that’s right. What’s interesting is you have—I work and support an international peasant movement called La Via Campesina, and they have a slogan about “Small farmers cool the planet.” And largely because the kinds of rich agroecological farming that farmers do—the small, sustainable peasant farmers do—build soil fertility and it does sequester carbon. But they don’t want to be paid for it. They want to be acknowledged for it. And what they want is for other people not to be able to mine carbon for free.
JM: [unclear] commodification.
RP: Yeah, exactly. And I think that there’s something very, very disturbing about the idea that we would turn almost everything into something that can be bought and sold. Even now, there was a film in the 1980s called Spaceballs. It was a film in which, laughingly, there was an evil empire that was about to steal air from a planet that had taken care of that air quite well. And it was Mel Brooks sort of laughing at the most absurd and preposterous ideas that we could possibly come up with.
And we’re doing just that. In many ways, rich countries are now putting a price on air, on the ability to pollute through these carbon trading systems that have been demonstrated not to work, that are essentially finding ways of shoveling the duty to clean the mess that we in the rich countries have made and sort of pass that on to future generations or to anyone else but ourselves.
And I think that there’s something interesting about the agroecological approach to farming that we don’t see in these sort of big economic models. And that’s a certain humility and doubt about the way that we approach nature and the world, the world in which we find ourselves. I think you’re absolutely right that the way that our farming systems have worked so far have been about domination: you know, “We will make nature bend to our will.”
But nature’s having the last laugh right now. I mean, just look outside and see the effects of the drought. This is what happens. We have no idea quite how severe the effects climate of change are going to be, but we’re already witnessing them now. But it’s not too late to regain our humility, even if we are heading into some very uncharted waters. But humility and doubt, when it comes to working with ecosystems, and a willingness to be open to whatever natures throws at us, I think, is going to make for more robust farming systems. Because at the moment, a monoculture can only work under perfect conditions, and we’ve been—we are having those perfect conditions taken away from us.
JM: Extending your comments on humility as part of agroecology or organic farming. I love Einstein’s quote: “We must recover our capacity for awe and reverence.” And I think that’s totally appropriate, as “Are we already in the collapse?” is part of the question in what you suggest, and indeed, how deep?
TM: Yeah, well I’m struck that, in nature—and I loved your answer about nature is so complex, and of course it is. It’s so both simple and beautifully complex. But the institutions of the human family are getting very, very complex, and our bureaucracies are so complex, and we have now laws that people don’t even understand, like Citizens United. And I see the people around us, the Amish for example, who are basically saying, “Simplify, simplify,” to the point where they don’t even use zippers and they won’t drive cars. And so they themselves, I think, are reacting to kind of a complex human situation.
But I’d like to ask this question, if I might, about our population, because it seems like some of our problems with global warming and our whole bureaucracy of complexity could possibly be answered if we could do better population planning. How is it that we can look at our problems as a whole human species more honestly? How do we deal with this? It seems to be a taboo topic.
RP: Well and I think the reason it’s a taboo topic is because when it has been tried in the past, it has been so horrific for people of color and for poor people. I mean, when populations are to be controlled, it’s not populations of the rich, it’s always populations of the poor. And that’s—I think that it’s important to acknowledge that deeply disreputable history that population control, when done by governments, have.
But I think that if we’re interested in having fewer people on the planet, then there’s a very simple solution, which is girls’ and women’s education. And that’s the one policy around the world that has been shown to help women control their fertility rates, increase welfare, increase education, increase life expectancy, do all these fantastic things. But I never hear the discussion about population really talking about women’s empowerment, and I want to hear that because I never hear that.
Instead, what I hear—and I know I’m not hearing this from you, Theresa—but I think one of the reasons why I get riled when I get into these conversations about population, is because behind it is an idea that “those people…” I mean, we need to keep consuming just as we are and everything’s fine, but those people, good God, if they’d consume anything like what we have, we’re all screwed, so we must stop them from getting their hands on fridges and cars and all the things that we have. And that kind of racism is something that I’m very sensitive to and I think that it’s entirely disreputable.
And I think that the conversation that’s the harder one to have, because it’s easier to have conversation about controlling the population of “them over there” than for us to say we need to consume less, because if we had… I mean, if everyone on Earth consumed as much as we do in the United States, we’d need seven planets. And we only have the one. And so, given that, we have a choice: either we consume less and it is fair for everyone to consume a globally fair amount, or you license inequality. And if we’re concerned about systems collapsing, then the red flag of system collapse is inequality, deep inequality. And that’s, it seems to me, not anything I want to be part of.
I would—I am ready and happy to consume less, because I’ve seen how downsizing from the way that most of us consume to consuming less can actually bring more happiness and more joy and more community connection. But that’s not a world—I mean, the rules of the game are so set up against that that I think a lot of our activism has to be not only about reeducating the horizons of our desires, but also changing the rules of the economic game so it’s possible for us to imagine an economy that doesn’t grow for the sake of growing. Our economic model at the moment is about grow, grow, grow, grow all the time—but again, we only have one planet. How much are you going to grow? I think that understanding those limits to consumption rather than limits to the population are the much harder parts of the conversation. They’re way more taboo than merely talking about population.
JM: Oh, in large agreement with you, Raj. I think food—and, I have a belief that all of us need to become more ecologically wise. Wherever we start from, none of us is perfected in our ecological understandings.
And I believe passionately that food is on point for eco-awareness. We definitely—what you frame, rich people decreasing the demand is especially apparent in the food context. That in America we consume 800 kilograms of grain, 700 of it indirectly through meat, eggs, et cetera. And in India, the average is 200. Well, to Raj’s point, obviously we in the wealthy world must decrease our demand, decrease our life-destroying, life-denying lifestyles, and to do it consciously as part of a world plan, as part of recognizing if two billion of us are stuffed, in a term Raj uses in his book title, that two billion are starving or food insecure.
Critically, in this discussion, and another reason why we must be prepared to decrease our demand on Earth resources and particularly the complexity of food, is that three billion people between the starving and the stuffed are in rising aspirations. They are newly middle class. They want much richer diets, more meat, more diversity. And that is only another factor in how many of us double-wise humans there are on the planet.
RP: And I do worry about those increasing desires of… I mean, we were talking a little about India, for instance, and how in India, because of marketing, in large part, this sort of influx in marketing, you now have kids who are hooked on the idea of Coke and Pepsi and these salty, sugary, sweet, various kinds of snack foods that are propelling them to a massive epidemic of diabetes. And that’s being called the nutrition transition, this sort of almost inevitable process where people in China and India will start desiring the things that we in the West have already found incredibly disruptive. And I think that although certainly these large corporations are very keen—I mean, they’re seeing their faces light up with dollar signs when they see these aspiring young consumers in China and India and elsewhere in the emerging world—our fate in the United States, where only four out of ten Americans have a normal bodyweight or where we have the highest levels of obesity on Earth, that doesn’t have to be the fate of India and China.
So what’s being told is a nutrition transition is not inevitable. There’s no inevitable transition away from a diet that’s rich in grains and low in meat to something that’s going to kill people. I think we can imagine a great leap forward, as it were, to be able to skip the mess that we’re in so that China and India and elsewhere don’t have to suffer what it is that we’re suffering. But I think that’s going to take a lot of activism, not just here but elsewhere.
JM: If food is on point, for us to become wiser at how we inhabit this planet, that certainly nutrition awareness—which is quite deficient in the world today, no matter which nation you look at—how we approach nutrition awareness as an absolute component of rising consciousness to keep us from collapse, whether food systems, other natural resource systems. I find nutrition awareness how to approach that. I know it’s something Theresa has long been pursuing.
TM: And it’s so sad to see that people have to wait until they’re sick or they have diabetes or they have a cancer in their family before they even actually wake up. And we probably—and actually I think it is almost related to the idea of population planning or family planning, that nutrition has to be part of family planning as well. And I think, once again, I really appreciated what you said about the education of the women. Women are nurturers. It’s women who really need to start this nutrition awareness.
So that would be my response to it, that there are some very simple things. People ask me all the time when I speak, “What can I do to be healthy?” And I said, “Well, do you cook at home? Do you know how to cook?” It’s sad to think that there’s generations, Gen X, Gen Y, who stopped cooking. Their parents said, “That’s enough for me, I’m getting frozen dinners.” And through some of our Earth Dinners, I was shocked to sit with young people in their thirties who say, “Gee, no, my mother never cooked and I never learned how to cook and I’m having to start to cook now and learn how to cook.” And when you start to learn something when you’re thirty, that’s the key to health—that, of course, and having a garden. And if you raise your children with a garden too, they also start beginning to like food. There is this thought that Americans eat beige food. And we do. We do.
But I think there’s actually—I’d love to, if I could, ask one more topic because I know we’re going to be running out of time very soon. And I was so struck, also, reading Raj, his thoughts about participatory democracy, and also learning democracy on the streets, and also some of the models. Which I so appreciate the hopeful models that you keep presenting of, “Hey, people are solving these problems.” But I wondered, even in nutrition and family planning and a lot of these problems, how can we use democracy to solve these problems?
JM: First frame, I believe, Theresa, is to make the sharp distinction between participatory democracy and representative democracy. I can state at seventy-one years into my American life that representative democracy seems like a fraud to me, at this point, in my judgment. And it is in participatory democracy that we do begin, at a human scale, [to] approach the problems that face us. And your concept of food sovereignty certainly touches on participatory.
And food again, as Theresa mentioned, is a first place of us focusing on what we can do directly and what is it to be part of a community? What is it to know your farmer? What is it that we come more directly, starting with gardening as the most direct or even having some chickens in the yard, as a wonderful Food Forward program, the “Urban Farming,” also addresses.
When I was in Cuba, it was thrilling. They had just announced in 2007, urban people shall grow half their food. Now in Havana, you see the beginnings of this. They’re not to a place where half of all the food urban people are eating, but they are on the path. That is food sovereignty. That is new ideas. And of course, they’re eating organic, fresh, direct. And this is an example of participatory, because you drive around Havana, the gardens are full of people, as well as botanical wonder. And that has to extend; there must be more local control.
The idea that wisdom resides in Washington, D.C., or Moscow—no. There is not superior wisdom gathered in those places, and certainly not sufficient to control hundreds of millions of people over continental distances. The future, I think, is much more decentralized.
RP: And I’m excited by that idea. My worry is that I think, in part, we don’t know how to do democracy. I mean, the taboo—we were talking about taboos. One of the taboo topics in US dinner conversation is politics. People don’t get into it as much as… I’ve been lucky enough to have dinner in Italy and in India and in places around the world, people talk about politics all the time. And people will have these blazing rows, and then they’ll be fine, because it’s okay to have disagreements and then figure out ways around those disagreements. But if you don’t talk about things, then all of a sudden it just becomes sort of a team sport, where you’re cheering one team or the other but you’re never subject to doubt and humility.
And again, getting back to these ideas of, “Could I be wrong? Could the truth lie not between you and me but in some place completely different?” These ideas don’t circulate here so much, and I feel like we’re just sort of taking baby steps back into learning how to disagree collectively and to consense collectively and to figure out how it is that we move forward. And food does offer a kind of playpen in which we can exercise our democratic muscles so that when we get out we can actually take on some bigger things. But actually doing food properly also means taking on some bigger things, if we’re thinking about nutrition education.
The big corporations are ready to offer us nutrition if we want it. I don’t know if you remember Diet Coke Plus. This was Diet Coke deciding that, “Yes, of course, we respond. We’re hearing you about nutrition, and so we’re going to give you Diet Coke that already tastes like someone has emptied a chemistry set into a can of Coke, and then we’re going to add vitamins. And so now you can have your calorie-free, nutrient-free drink with added nutrients.” So when it comes to nutrition education, corporations are ready to come in and school us, unless we are prepared, in the same way that corporations are ready to do our democracy for us.
And I remember when The Value of Nothing came out, Mountain Dew had this campaign around “You can choose which of three flavors of Mountain Dew will be released into the world.” And is it Electron Volt or Power Red or something, whatever. And they called this process “Dew-mocracy.”
And that’s kind of what it is that we’re being offered—when you get to choose between two different things but you don’t have… I mean, that’s not much of a choice. When you say, “Coke or Pepsi?” that’s a synonym for not having any choice. It’s like “Shot or hanged?” But the real democracy, I think, means getting engaged in debates a lot more, but finding what it is that binds us a lot more. And we only get to do that, not through individual consumption decisions, but through working on projects to actually make sure, for example, that everyone gets fed. And that sign of connection with people and the world is something I’m very excited to see more of.
JM: A word that comes to mind that is in this discussion: disintermediation. The more directly we act in our economic and political lives, the more we disintermediate the instrumentalities of control, whether state or corporate. And it’s not like I’m pretending to be an expert in disintermediation. But I think it is a word for our thinking about approaching complexity, about approaching the deep problems that we are already aware of and where our future analyses might take us.
TM: Thank you so much. And I’m talking with Jerome McGeorge and Raj Patel, and thank you so much for your great words of wisdom. It’s been super to discuss this with you.
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